Can Twitter Predict Future Healthcare Needs?

There is no doubt that the new information age has touched many areas of our lives; from staying connected to far away family and friends to “Googling” how-tos, symptoms of our back aches… etc.

These days, many people consult Google for healthcare advice before they contact their doctor. This trend has even extended to new social media sites, such as Facebook & Twitter, where symptoms and remedies are being shared by Friends and Tweeps around the world.

Recently, two researchers at John Hopkins University data mined 2 billion tweets and discovered an abundance of real-time medical information that could have far reaching effects on public health on a wide range of ailments. Mark Dredze, a researcher with the university’s Human Language Technology Center, and Michael J. Pau, a doctoral student, created an algorithm to filter out approximately 1.5 million tweets that related to health issues. No personal data was retained by the study, but they were able to record most of the tweet’s geographic locations; allowing them to map medical trends.

“Our goal was to find out whether Twitter posts could be a useful source of public health information.” said Dredez, “We determined that indeed they could. In some cases, we probably learned some things that even the tweeters’ doctors were not aware of, like which over-the-counter medicines the posters were using to treat their symptoms at home.”

This medical concept isn’t new to the web, most people are aware of Google’s Flu Trends website; where real-time searches for information about the flu and its symptoms are plotted across the world. However, the John Hopkins’ researchers uncover patterns dealing with everything from allergies, to the flu, cancer, obesity and even depression to name a few. In many instances the data showed the medications people were taking to treat themselves. For example, researchers discovered many users treating themselves with antibiotics to combat the flu, without understanding that antibiotics are ineffective against the flu – information like this could be extremely valuable to public health officials.

As our world gets more and more social connected, data like this could have a huge impact on medical issues. Never before in history has medical science had the ability to monitor human behavior on such a large scale. As the momentum of sites like Facebook and Twitter continue to rise; it seems that there will be an abundance of medical data for doctors and researchers to stay on top of.

How  do you think Facebook and Twitter will shape the healthcare industry? 

        • Recently, two researchers mined 2B tweets and found real-time medical info that could have far reaching effects on public health (Tweet)
        • John Hopkins’ researchers use Twitter to uncover patterns dealing with everything from allergies to obesity (Tweet)

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